Sound and Shadow
Dedicated to the memory of T. Max Graham
ArtSounds Spring 2012, La Esquina Urban Culture Project Gallery, Kansas City, MO

mccoycarl* with musicians Tom Aber, Pat Conway, Dwight Frizzell, and Richard Johnson
*Karen McCoy (artist) and Robert Carl (composer)

The performance was in progress when visitors entered. Viewer/ participants were invited to walk around in the space and/or place a chair where they wanted. At the end of the evening, there was an opportunity to speak with the artists and performers.

Karen McCoy: I Ifirst began to take an active interest in the effects of light and shadow on discreet surfaces when I was in residence at the Camargo Foundation in the south of France during my sabbatical in 2000. Since then I have captured many instances of the dancing light and shadow that still fascinate me. As I have worked with this imagery I have learned about light and sound neurotherapy which is said to have a profoundly calming effect on our minds and has been studied for over a century. Think of watching a flickering fire while listening to jazz, for example.

I met Robert Carl in 2000 and have since then envisioned a collaboration with his sounds accompanying the images. We have several times adapted his scores for projections, but this is the first time we have had an original score with musicians responding to the movement in the imagery. The video footage has not been sped up or altered in anyway except for taking excerpts out of longer footage.

Robert Carl: When Karen McCoy suggested I collaborate with her for an ArtSounds invitation by making a musical accompaniment to her Light and Shadow videos, I jumped at the chance. I’ve known these pieces for some time, and I’ve been haunted by their simplicity and complexity. The framework of each tends to be very basic: forms dictated by a shadow sources, which often move slowly with time, accompanied by movement of varying paces and changes in shade and color causing with layers of delicate pattern in combination with often bold graphic qualities. The result is a blend of the representational with the abstract, an animation of abstract iconography. And that in turn is a very good description of a musical score, how graphic notation elicits the action of producing sound, shaping it into some sort of aural meaning.

My approach has been the following: having viewed all the videos in the series (about 8) and taken notes about their salient characteristics, important events over time, and musical possibilities, Karen and I agreed on a group of three (in fact four, since Light in the Kitchen is divided into two halves from its long shoot’s duration). Then, for each of these I considered those visual aspects that might be most stimulating to a musician’s eye, en route to his/her ear. From these a “score” was developed for each video, that was more a series of guidelines for interpretation than a tightly controlling script. In this way, following these instructions, each musician is allowed to generate his/her own “piece” through repeated practice with the video. Necessarily the piece involves extensive improvisation on the part of each player. I’ve tried to stimulate their own creativity, while at the same time defining enough parameters hopefully to give the work a particular recognizable character.

For the listener/viewer, I hope the effect will be that of wandering through a sort of sonic/visual forest that is this installation. Viewers may pause at various points and ponder closely the relationship between a particular player and video, and may also stand back and take in the ever-shifting canvas of the whole. Concentrating on a particular pair of performer and video, will, over time, allow a sense of connection between the images and the sounds. Even if one can’t describe exactly how it works, the trigger between shadow and sonic activity will be felt. (See below.*)

As I neared completion of the score, I realized that I was drawing on strategies and attitudes embodied in music of John Cage, especially from his more indeterminate works on the 1960’s and 70s. This only seems appropriate in this centennial year of his birth, and so I humbly offer this music as an homage to a great artist. And in the spirit of Cage, who insisted that his music was designed to unleash the greatest musicianship and creativity of those who performed it, I thank and salute those performers who are in every sense “co-composers”.

*An excerpt from the general instructions for Sound and Shadow:

….This work is extremely open, but the suggestions that follow are hopefully designed to help you realize the most imaginative, creatively satisfying, and musically appropriate realization in collaboration with the images. Thus, it is very important to study the video and practice with it as much as possible in advance of the performance. The more this feels like a genuine interpretation, rather than a last-minute encounter, the more successful it will be….Most importantly, this is not a sprint, but a marathon. In order for your part to register in the overall scheme, you will need to pace your performance. That means choosing places to sit out, sections that concentrate on a single small idea, passages of delicacy or tenderness. Following this approach, moments of real activity, drama, even violence, will have far more impact. So chill out, and enter into dialogue with the image in a meditative state, one that truly enters the moment in a way of serenity, equanimity, and direct response.

*An excerpt from the specific instructions for realizing Tofukuji:

Perhaps the video’s most distinctive characteristic as being the layers of shadows from delicately leafed branches

1) Near the center one sees a set of branches that tend to wave upwards

2) And then, at times, when there is more activity, there is a larger, darker but more diffuse layer that sweeps downward

Each of these can be associated with some sort of motive---the former tending upwards, the latter downwards (though the downwards one doesn’t necessarily have to be higher than upwards one)

It may be interesting if in some loose way they are inversions of each other. Choose a core motive for the image and then play with it, deriving these two subsidiary motives from it. The harmonic/scalar content of these motives should be related. They will be derived over consultation with the composer and the other players.